Book Review: Feel Free by Zadie Smith



by Zadie Smith


What do you most look forward to in a new Zadie Smith novel? What’s your favourite thing about On Beauty or White Teeth? She’s a great novelist, her characters stay with you, but what sets her apart (and the reason why every contemporary literature class features at least a short story by her) is that she comes from an academic background, and it ever-present in her writing. More than crafting an enticing story, or introducing you to complex and fascinating characters, her art involves an underlying understanding of critical and literary theory that gives explicit purpose to her fiction. She doesn’t just tell you a story; she knows why you need this story, because she is primarily concerned with the social role of writing.

Feel Free is a collection of Zadie Smith’s essays; some of them have been previously published – in The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books etc. – so a chunk of them can be found online, and some of them are new. The topics are varied, and the books is split in five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Galley,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” Why do we need libraries? How do different generations respond to Facebook? What’s so fascinating about Joni Mitchell? What’s it like for Justin Bieber to meet people? (“I’m not on Twitter but quite often I find myself thinking of Justin Bieber. It’s not a sexual interest – at least, I don’t think it is. It’s more of a – bear with me – philosophical interest.”) The questions range from artistic, to creative, to socio-political, to personal, and they are all explored with the same level of introspective curiosity and sensitivity. In a way, every essay here is personal to Smith; even when the topic may seem to demand a different approach, her angle is always personal. When she sets out to interview Jay Z (in “The House That Hova Built”), it’s not only his perspective on the evolving world of hip-hop and civil rights that matters; the interview genre is mixed with the essay genre to produce a narrative where Jay’s thoughts are processed by Smith first, which is then followed by her own experience with hip-hop (along with subtle callbacks to On Beauty, for attentive readers). When she writes about the transformative art of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the context is framed by the role of their mixed-race background in the way they construct sketches and characters to analyse various elements of the contemporary discourse on race in America; her insight and input is reminiscent of White Teeth:

Peele, when asked about how race is dealt with on the show, said, ‘Really, there’s no actual strategy, and there’s no perspective that would be easy to . . . to state. Much like race in this country. It’s so nuanced. It’s so complicated. It’s so deep-seated, and, at the same time, it’s evolving, and then it feels like it devolves. And it’s this nebulous thing.’ I thought of that William Gibson quote: ‘The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ It can’t be easy making race comedy in such a mixed reality: a black President on the one hand, black boys dying in the streets on the other.
— Zadie Smith, Feel Free

And when she is not writing about art that deals with social issues, she’s exploring her own relationship with art, as she does in “Some Notes on Attunement,” where she questions her relationship with Joni Mitchell’s music. The beloved Canadian songwriter proved to be an acquired taste for Smith, who seemed to exhibit a natural resistance to her open tuned guitar plucking during her youth. At some point though, Smith fell abruptly and unexpectedly in love with Joni Mitchell, and in this essay she is trying to understand why – or how?

How is it possible to hate something so completely and then suddenly love it so unreasonably? How does such a change occur?
— Zadie Smith, Feel Free

This question leads to an exploration of artistry, how artistic taste is constructed over the years, what she calls “connoisseurs”: people whose knowledge on art, and not only, is so wide and goes so deep that is baffles Smith: “How did she find the time?” But what it also explores is innovation in art, the way Joni Mitchell’s music seemed to be an easy object of pleasure for some, while for Smith it required something that she can’t really explain. Towards the end of the essay she gives an analogy with Picasso’s paintings, bringing together her points about connoisseurs and that elusive quality of Joni Mitchell:

[If] I had paid a call on Picasso in his studio [in 1907] I would have looked at the canvas of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ and been nonplussed, maybe even a little scandalized. If, in my real life of 2012, I stand before this painting in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, it seems obviously beautiful to me. All the difficult work of attunement and acceptance has already been done by others. Smart critics, other painters, appreciative amateurs. They kicked the door open almost a century ago – all I need do is walk through it.
— Zadie Smith, Feel Free

As is the case with the best essays, Feel Free presents you with a collection of thoughts that don’t presume to give you any answers but understand that you need to explore these questions for yourself – they just provide some potentially useful tools for doing so. Feel Free is like a catalogues of thoughts and ideas on the world we live in – you can pick it up from your nightstand whenever you need some help making sense of something that you think Zadie Smith might know a thing or two about. It won’t solve any problems, but it will expand your field of vision. And if you’re more keen on reading it in one go, I imagine it will feel like sitting down for a drink with Zadie Smith and passionately discussing art and society for hours.


Feel Free comes out in the U.S. today (6 February) and in the U.K. on 8 February.



BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.



Platon Poulas